I have a to-be-read list that stretches on for about a mile. (And I’m about to add to it, as I’m typing this post from an Amtrak train that is carrying me to Romance Writers of America’s annual meeting, where free books will be in abundance…) Of course, the mere fact that I have a TBR list implies that there are vast hordes of books on my not-to-be-read list. But I don’t think about the majority of those books.
Today, I’m thinking about one book in particular. The book that has received more press than any other single novel this year. The book that blew away previous pre-order records at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The book that sold 1.1 million copies in its first week on the market. The book that has resulted in much controversy, including a state investigation into the welfare of the author.
Of course, I’m talking about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.
To Kill a Mockingbird and I are old friends. I first met Lee’s novel in an odd library edition–an orange, hard-cover binding with a relatively modern image.
(You’ll have to imagine the orange background; the image gods were fortunate and did not turn up a copy!)
I read the book relatively late, in high school, where I participated on the speech team, specializing in Extemporaneous Prose. My junior year, Mockingbird was the book selected for competition. At each tournament, we competitors would draw a slip of paper that contained a 30-page section of the book. We had 15 minutes to prepare our presentation, then we had five minutes to present an edited dramatic presentation of those 30 pages.
I read Mockingbird dozens of times while preparing for competition, and I drew slips of paper a couple of dozen times during the year. I learned to present Scout’s voice, and Atticus’s, and all the supporting characters. I went to State in competition, where I placed in the top three competitors in my category.
Since high school, I’ve re-read Mockingbird a couple of times. I’m always impressed by the language, by the evocation of a time and a place. I’ve followed the controversies through the years. (Did Truman Capote really write the book? Why is Harper Lee such a recluse? Why hasn’t Harper Lee written anything else?)
And then, as we all know, we learned that Lee did write something else.
Or maybe not. From the reports I’ve read, it seems as if Lee wrote earlier drafts of Mockingbird. She developed her characters and her theme. She created a plot. She revised her work, likely several times. She shifted her story from a “coming home” story to a “growing up” story. Now, that first version–the “coming home” story, Go Set a Watchman–is being marketed as a separate novel.
It’s impossible for any outsider to know the truth behind Mockingbird and Watchman. Lee may know, if she’s still compos mentis. Her attorney, who brought Watchman to light, knows. A handful of other people may know parts of the story.
But I have chosen to accept this version of the narrative: Lee locked away Watchman, never intending it to be published. It was a draft, a version of a story that did not reflect her ultimate vision of her characters, her plot, or her theme. Lee will never profit from the sale of Watchman; she is unable to use the vast sums of money that should be flowing to her from the sale of the book. And I will not participate in the Watchman celebration.
I fully understand that reasonable minds may differ regarding Watchman. I don’t think less of people who choose to buy the work and/or to read it. But I hope that each person who does support Watchman has thought through the implications of their choice and does so knowingly and with consideration before action.
P.S. For what it’s worth, I see the Watchman situation as different from Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. Ellison was also a great American writer. He also wrote a single book, Invisible Man, that is widely read and generally considered a masterpiece. He also lived a relatively reclusive life, resisting society’s urging to publish more during his lifetime. After his death, he was found to have been working on another novel, which was published posthumously. But unfinished work is different, to me, from finished-and-boxed-under-the-bed work.